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Newton's BigBelly Solar is building an Internet of trash cans

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 23, 2011 08:30 AM

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If you live in Boston, you've probably used BigBelly Solar's product: they're stout-looking trash receptacles with a solar panel on top. When the can fills up about half-way with trash, a compactor mechanism smashes it down, using solar power that has been stored up in a battery. As a result, the company says, BigBelly compactors can hold four to five times the amount of garbage as a typical trash can — and thus, they don't need to be emptied as often. That can save cities serious money, and more than 12,000 of the cans now dot Philadelphia, Chicago, and the campuses of MIT and Boston University. (Pictured at right are a BigBelly can and the accompanying SmartBelly receptacle, which holds recyclables, but doesn't have the compacting mechanism.)

Now, perhaps realizing that recurring revenues are better than one time sales, the company is repositioning itself as a software-as-a-service company that also happens to sell hardware. BigBelly is integrating GSM wireless connectivity into its trash and recycling cans, which allow them to report their status to a Web-based software system. The company has dubbed it a "smart grid for waste and recycling," and by sending crews out to empty only the receptacles that need it, BigBelly thinks it can eliminate at least 7 of every 10 pick-up trips that trash vehicles make today.

"I come out of the networking world, so for me, these devices are nodes in a network," says chief executive Barry Fougere. (He was CEO of Colubris Networks, a wireless start-up acquired by HP.) "Our customers at BigBelly are not used to having information. Are my guys doing their job? Where do we have problems with cans that are overfull, and trash is blowing everywhere? We give them that." They call the software CLEAN Wireless (see a screenshot below.) CLEAN stands for Collection Logistics Efficiency and Notification.

Looking at real-time data for the city of Philadelphia — BigBelly's largest customer — Fougere shows that 29 of the city's 893 networked compactors are red (meaning they should be emptied immediately), and 145 are yellow (meaning they're approaching full). BigBelly's software also shows if a door to the receptacle has been left open, or if there's maintenance that needs to be performed. It can also spit out a list of all of the locations of the cans that need to be emptied.

"The goal," Fougere explains, "is to take capacity out of their system — meaning trucks and crews — without negatively impacting service levels." In Philly, for instance, the sanitation department used to swing by some trash cans 17 times a week; now, the average is 2.5 times a week. Chicago had been collecting trash at most downtown locations twice a day, and now that number is only twice a week, according to Fougere.

The technology seems perfectly designed for politicians — not just sanitation managers. "It's an early win that elected officials can take credit for in their renewables portfolio," says Fougere. Engineering vice president Michael Feldman adds, "Having the data is great, because it proves how much gas and emissions they're saving." It also cuts down on the number of citizens who call into the Mayor's office to complain about unkempt trash cans in city parks, Feldman says.

The technology isn't cheap: leasing 10 systems that include a trash compactor and recycling container is about $1000 a month, Fougere says, and purchasing them outright would be about $60,000 (including a 5-year software license.) But they say most users will see a payback within two years from the savings on labor and truck operating costs. Customers who have already bought the BigBelly compactors that don't have wireless integrated will have the choice of paying for an upgrade — or not.

The company has deployed close to 1000 BigBelly cans around eastern Massachusetts, but most haven't yet been linked to the wireless network for reporting. (From here on out, the company plans to only sell the receptacles with a subscription to its software.)

BigBelly has been funded by angel investors and publicly-traded Waste Management. Fougere said BigBelly achieved profitability last year, and isn't currently out raising additional funding.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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